Getting Nationals starters to go distance becoming Johnson’s strategy

The Nationals’ offense is certainly not where it wants to be. But it is making progress. One way to achieve the consistency it needs for the team to be a contender is for every player in the lineup to be healthy at the same time.

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman returned Friday but now right fielder Jayson Werth is suffering from hamstring tightness. Werth hopes to be back in the lineup when the two-game series with the Tigers opens up Tuesday at Nationals Park.

But the biggest trend recently that is helping the team’s cause is how far into games the starting pitching has been able to reach the past five days:

Wednesday, May 1: Jordan Zimmermann, WON, eight innings, two hits, no runs. TEAM: WON

Thursday, May 2: Dan Haren, WON, eight innings, four hits, one run. TEAM: WON

Friday, May 3: Ross Detwiler, LOSS, five innings, six hits, three runs. TEAM: LOSS

Saturday, May 4: Stephen Strasburg, NO DEC, seven innings, five hits, four runs. TEAM: WON

Sunday, May 5: Gio Gonzalez, WON, six innings, five hits, two runs. TEAM: WON

Zimmermann and Haren starting off with back-to-back eight inning performances demonstrate the strength of this rotation. But it also shows a possible departure from original strategy by manager Davey Johnson.

As I have talked about the past few weeks, Johnson said early in April he would like to ease his starters into longer games. It seemed six innings was all that he was looking for, saying he wanted to have his starters build up to longer outings as the season went along.

But Johnson also likes to see the fire in the eyes of his starters. If he gets the feeling they can go the distance, and their pitch count is not too heavy, he will give them that chance.

Even in early May.

Maybe it was because the bullpen was struggling, whether it was Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen or Rafael Soriano. Or maybe it was a return to the old school ways that Johnson knows were successful. That strategy was based on the premise that his starter, even in the seventh or eighth innings, is stronger than most any reliever he would trot out there to finish the game.

Even though Strasburg is still working on some small tweaks, he was able to get through seven innings Saturday.

That meant that three of Johnson’s last five starters in his rotation went at least seven innings. That takes the pressure off the bullpen and doesn’t wear down the starters because he is playing a close eye to pitching counts, trying to limit the pitches to somewhere in the low 90s.

Zimmermann, Gonzalez and Haren have the track record to throw complete games almost every start. Strasburg certainly has the ability and is just working on first pitch strikes.

Detwiler had a pair of seven inning starts early in April, and even though he has hit a bit of a bump in the road the last two games (10 combined innings), you would expect he also could get back to getting to the seventh inning with the ease of his delivery.

Watching the starters get to the seventh inning or beyond solidifies why these five are considered top ranked in major league baseball and Johnson knows they are the horses the Nationals need to ride through May and beyond to be division and wildcard contenders.

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